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Tale of last 90 minutes of woman's life

County officials express dismay at the events surrounding the recent controversial death at King-Harbor hospital. One nurse has resigned.

May 20, 2007|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

In the emergency room at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, Edith Isabel Rodriguez was seen as a complainer.

"Thanks a lot, officers," an emergency room nurse told Los Angeles County police who brought in Rodriguez early May 9 after finding her in front of the Willowbrook hospital yelling for help. "This is her third time here."

The 43-year-old mother of three had been released from the emergency room hours earlier, her third visit in three days for abdominal pain. She'd been given prescription medication and a doctor's appointment.

Turning to Rodriguez, the nurse said, "You have already been seen, and there is nothing we can do," according to a report by the county office of public safety, which provides security at the hospital.

Parked in the emergency room lobby in a wheelchair after police left, she fell to the floor. She lay on the linoleum, writhing in pain, for 45 minutes, as staffers worked at their desks and numerous patients looked on.

Aside from one patient who briefly checked on her condition, no one helped her. A janitor cleaned the floor around her as if she were a piece of furniture. A closed-circuit camera captured everyone's apparent indifference.

Arriving to find Rodriguez on the floor, her boyfriend unsuccessfully tried to enlist help from the medical staff and county police -- even a 911 dispatcher, who balked at sending rescuers to a hospital.

Alerted to the "disturbance" in the lobby, police stepped in -- by running Rodriguez's record. They found an outstanding warrant and prepared to take her to jail. She died before she could be put into a squad car.

How Rodriguez came to die at a public hospital, without help from the many people around her, is now the subject of much public hand-wringing. The county chief administrative office has launched an investigation, as has the Sheriff's Department homicide division and state and federal health regulators.

The triage nurse involved has resigned, and the emergency room supervisor has been reassigned. Additional disciplinary actions could come this week.

The incident has brought renewed attention to King-Harbor, a long-troubled hospital formerly known as King/Drew.

The Times reconstructed the last 90 minutes of Rodriguez's life based on accounts by three people who have seen the confidential videotape, a detailed police report, interviews with relatives and an account of the boyfriend's 911 call.

"I am completely dumbfounded," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has seen the video recording.

"It's an indictment of everybody," he said. "If this woman was in pain, which she appears to be, if she was writhing in pain, which she appears to be, why did nobody bother ... to take the most minimal interest in her, in her welfare? It's just shocking. It really is."

The story of Rodriguez's demise began at 12:34 a.m. when two county police officers received a radio call of a "female down" and yelling for help near the front entrance of King-Harbor, according to the police report.

When they approached Rodriguez to ask what was wrong, she responded in a "loud and belligerent voice that her stomach was hurting," the report states. She said she had 10 gallstones and that one of them had burst.

A staff member summoned by the police arrived with a wheelchair and rolled her into the emergency room. Among her belongings, one officer found her latest discharge slip from the hospital, which instructed her to "return to ER if nausea, vomit, more pain or any worse."

When the officers talked to the emergency room nurse, she "did not show any concern" for Rodriguez, the police report said. The report identifies the nurse as Linda Witland, but county officials confirmed that her name is Linda Ruttlen, who began working for the county in July 1992.

Ruttlen could not be reached for comment.

During that initial discussion with Ruttlen, Rodriguez slipped off her wheelchair onto the floor and curled into a fetal position, screaming in pain, the report said.

Ruttlen told her to "get off the floor and onto a chair," the police report said. Two officers and a different nurse helped her back to the wheelchair and brought her close to the reception counter, where a staff member asked her to remain seated.

The officers left and Rodriguez again pitched forward onto the floor, apparently unable to get up, according to people who saw the videotape and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Because the tape does not have sound, it is not possible to determine whether Rodriguez was screaming or what she was saying, the viewers said. Because of the camera's angle, in most scenes, she is but a grainy blob, sometimes obstructed, moving around on the floor.

When Rodriguez's boyfriend, Jose Prado, returned to the hospital after an errand and saw her on the floor, he alerted nurses and then called 911.

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